Clem Sunter

The real class war

2010-07-15 09:07

One of the principal flags any foxy futurist looks at to assess the long-term economic prospects of an individual country is the quality of its education system. In a knowledge-intensive, competitive world, it defines whether a nation will join the Premier League and – if it does – its performance within the league.
It is no coincidence that the country which has put more emphasis on education than any other is No 1 in the latest Global Competitiveness Survey – Singapore. For the time being, it is the holder of the real World Cup because it has probably done more than any other nation to create a better life for all its citizens; not with handouts but by empowering each individual citizen with knowledge and skills.
By contrast, South Africa’s ranking in the Premier League in the field of science and maths education is stone last. Influential commentators on all sides of the political spectrum agree that the quality of many state schools has actually declined since 1994. What has kept our head above water is the fact that 10% of our schools are truly world class and produce most of the young talent that constitutes the future leadership of this country.
These “pockets of excellence” share the following seven characteristics:
1. They have highly motivated and effective principals. The quality of the principal is the single most important determinant in a school’s success or failure. A good principal will overcome the handicap of poor facilities to improve matric results. A bad principal will cause the best of schools to decline in performance. For this reason, the choice of principal should be in the hands of the school’s governing body who are best placed to judge whether the incumbent is doing a good job or bad job. Maybe, we should have an academy where principals are taught how to lead schools.
2. The teachers are more than qualified for their posts
. Class sizes are no more than 30. Textbooks are available in adequate quantities and updated.
3. The curriculum offered is in line with the needs of a modern society. For example, at a few of the best schools Mandarin is replacing Latin as an optional subject. Entrepreneurship is encouraged. So are hobbies, debating societies and music – especially school choirs.
4. Classrooms, laboratories and sporting facilities are reasonable. In both academic and athletic pursuits, the commitment of the teacher/coach is really what determines the school's prowess; but the buildings and playing fields must comply to certain standards.
5. Discipline is sufficiently well maintained to deter disruptive pupils and bullying.
Like the quality of the principal, this is an absolutely critical condition for a school’s success. Essentially, outstanding students are not dragged down by others who are jealous.
6. Every pupil has access to a computer. Satellite teaching is used where appropriate. The leavers come out as proficient in handling a computer as a cellphone!
7. Every “pocket of excellence” school has an esprit de corps among its pupils which makes them believe that their school is the best on Earth. This spirit is demonstrated most vociferously in key sporting fixtures with their deadly rivals.
Education is South Africa’s Achilles heel in the most important tournament of all in the world. While a commendable overhaul in the curriculum has just been announced, it can only go so far. We have excellent schools. We must study their operating models and challenge the underperformers to raise their game to a similar standard.
If it requires R50bn in extra facilities and more and better qualified teachers to do that, so be it. I am happy to pay the extra tax. However, I have a sneaking feeling that we already spend a fair proportion of our GDP on education; and it is more effective management that is required which holds principals accountable for the performance of their schools. If they do well, they get a bonus; if they do badly, they get replaced.
Equally, we need to make teaching a really desirable profession again: one that talented young people regard as an option on a par with joining a bank or an accountancy firm. Teaching is the front line.

After all, equal opportunity is the most fundamental right for any human being born into this world today.

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